Don’t make fur fly: pet safety when driving

Keeping your pet safe and comfortable when driving should be a no-brainer. But how many of us realise the full extent of what that means in practice?

The RSPCA and others recommend that dogs should be both secure and comfortable during transport, and this is translated in law as: ‘No person shall transport any animal in a way which causes or is likely to cause injury or unnecessary suffering to that animal.’

If you’re one of the 78% of dog owners and 50% of cat owners who travel with your furry friends in the car, read on to check you’re sticking to the guidelines, and how you can best care for your pet on the road.

Before you start

When planning journeys, think ahead about what your pet might need. You should allow regular stops for exercise and, after a few hours on the road, food for our animals. Water should ideally be available at all times – but let’s face it, you can’t have a dog bowl slopping water all over your boot, so try to plan short, sensible thirst stops if you don’t have a method of enclosed supply.

Before you set off, make sure you’ve fed, watered and toileted your pet – but limit food to 2 hours or more before you set off so that they’re not in need of getting out again too soon. Remember that a dog’s need to relieve itself does not constitute an emergency for which you can legally stop on a motorway hard shoulder; remember too that Dog Control Orders can be served against you for dog fouling offences in any public area, including roads and picnic sites.

Government advice from Defra says that pets must be fit to travel. So bear in mind, this should normally exclude animals who are ill or injured (except for minor issues), or new-born, those who’ve recently given birth or are heavily pregnant.

Pet enclosures

The Highway Code says that animals must be suitably restrained to avoid distracting or injuring the driver or themselves if there’s a sudden stop. It goes on to list a seat belt harness, pet carrier, dog cage or dog guard as ways of restraining animals in cars.

There are Government rules about the type and size of containers that should be used for transporting animals: they need to be at least big enough to allow your pet to stand, sit, lie down and turn in easily. So you may need one bigger than the one for the vet’s. Also, there shouldn’t be anything about the container which causes injury, such as getting their head, paws or tail trapped.

There should be plenty of ventilation and space for water and food. These should be fixed to the container so they’re not spilled or knocked over. That goes the same for a litter tray for cats.

If you have a big dog, they can, of course, sit in the boot compartment instead – in which case, consider having a dog guard and a non-slip floor surface.

On the journey

So far, so good. We’ve planned the route, enclosed our pet, and we’re on our way. The remaining things to consider are things we’re all probably routinely doing:

• Check early in the journey that your pet has settled down and is comfortable
• Avoid overheating – keep a window open at the back if it’s warm
• Spot the signs of distress and head for shade and water

Animals can start to become distressed if the temperature has been at 25°C or more for just a few minutes. If you notice that your dog’s panting has increased and they’re barking and whining more than usual, the chances are they’re starting to overheat. Another sign is lots of saliva, often in long drools. Which we don’t really want all over the leather seats.

Common practice

Time for an honesty check! How many of us are following these guidelines above?

RAC research – carried out among 1600+ people between November 2013 and January 2014 – would suggest not many dog owners do:

• more than one in ten people don’t think that leaving their dog unsecured is a driving hazard
• more than a quarter let dogs move freely
• a fifth left them unsecured on car seats
• 6% let them travel in passenger footwells
• only 15% use a dog cage or carrier and only a third restrict them to the boot
• less than a quarter use a pet seatbelt or harness

Cat owners were more safety conscious with 96% saying they would never consider letting their cat loose in the vehicle.

Whilst it’s difficult to find a container for larger dogs, pet seat belts and dog cages across the boot compartment provide alternatives.

The RAC’s notes make clear that roaming pets are a hazard: “Unsecured pets in moving vehicles are a real danger, not only to the driver and passengers, but to themselves in the event of an accident or if the driver has to brake suddenly.”

And that’s the point. Dogs can be injured too. In an accident, they can fall forward and suffer an injury, just like anyone not wearing a seatbelt. And you can’t help but think, even though we know some dogs can be very smart when it comes to cars, maybe one of those unsecured, large, roaming dogs, could just be the cause of one or two distraction-based accidents in the first place.

So – now you’ve got the tips, keep tails wagging and your fellow passengers and drivers safe as you take to the road with your pet!